How do I get my traction control fixed?
January 24, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I convince the dealer to fix my car? Lonnnng explanation inside

I drive a 2007 Saturn Aura - roughly 45,000 miles on it. When I bought the car (new), the airbag light came on repeatedly. I took the car in for servicing. They came back and told me the onboard computer said there was nothing wrong with my car - that it was "water on the seat - ignore it." Four years later, and after many, many, many trips to different dealerships, they found out that the airbag and the passenger seat had been improperly installed - it had never functioned. They repaired it. Fortunately, I was never in a wreck, so at least theoretically, no harm, no foul.

However, the larger problem was that the car's diagnostic computer does not work. It doesn't record anything. It never has.

Now, my traction control stops working intermittently. Worse, the car seems to skid, or slip, on dry pavement. The car's diagnostic computer does not record when the "service traction control" light comes on.

I took the car to a local dealer. They told me there's nothing wrong with it. There's nothing wrong with the onboard computer, there's nothing wrong with the traction control. To quote the service guy - "Your car works perfectly." I was told the exact same thing when the airbag was malfunctioning. Obviously, there's something wrong with the car's computer, since it didn't record any problems with the airbag. These are serious safety issues, and they're blowing me off.

OnStar was able to record the traction control codes one time - but what the dealership is saying is, the codes have to come from the car's computer, and there are no codes coming from the computer, and the computer works perfectly. Again, to quote, "Who would you rather trust? Some guy in India or me?" Well, actually, I trust myself. I've seen the "service traction control" light come on, and I've felt the car skid repeatedly. And, I went round and round for four years, trying to make them fix my airbag. Clearly, the onboard computer doesn't work, or it would have recorded the hundreds of times the "service airbag" light came on.

By refusing to repair the car's onboard computer - or even acknowledge there's a problem, they can ignore every other problem that crops up with my car. In a wreck, there would be no record at all that the traction control is squirrelly.

There is a known issue with the transmission - these 2007 Saturn Auras don't go into park when they're supposed to - could this be related?

The car is under extended warranty for another 7 1/2 months.

What do I do?
posted by clarkstonian to Technology (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Call Saturn directly and bypass the dealer. Tell them what you want (a new computer) fax or email them all the service records and documentation or timeline of your concerns.

If be surprised if they didnt just pay for a new computer right then.
posted by fshgrl at 12:11 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How often does it happen? Is it feasible to keep a running video camera pointed at your dash while driving, or record it with a smartphone (from the passenger's seat!)?
posted by supercres at 12:18 PM on January 24, 2012

Write to Saturn of America. My long story short: I had a big problem with my (bought new) Honda @ 40,000+ miles. I got nowhere with the dealer, so I wrote to Honda of America and concisely:
-- explained the problem I was having
-- explained my history as a Honda owner and my previously positive feelings about the brand
-- specifically asked them to cover this repair for me
They did. Purely by coincidence, there is now a class-action lawsuit for this repair issue, and it's been about 5 years since my experience.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2012

Yup. This is what the 1-800 number is for. I used to work for a BMW Motorcycles dealership, and calls to the main line are taken VERY seriously. Gather up all your documents, write out a timeline as accurately as you can and call the 1-800 number. When you call, have a solution in mind. Ask specifically for what you want ("I want x and y replaced under warranty with a written guarantee that further erratic behavior by electronic systems will be handled as a warranty concern" or whatever.)

Also, do not let your extended warranty lapse. Most warranties will let you renew as long as there hasn't been a lapse in coverage.

I'm not sure if the demise of Saturn will affect this process.
posted by workerant at 12:32 PM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: I have a call in to Saturn as I type.
posted by clarkstonian at 12:46 PM on January 24, 2012

Now, my traction control stops working intermittently. Worse, the car seems to skid, or slip, on dry pavement.

What does this mean exactly ? Because if your car is slipping on dry pavement, I would think the transmission or driveline are at fault, not the traction control.

Anyway, it is possible for the computer to not record the codes - the memory is read/writable and volatile, so it can be erased erroneously.

You can get a bluetooth OBD-II adapter and an app such as Torque to see what is happening in real time and log it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:16 PM on January 24, 2012

The traction control should only be activated when you are in low traction conditions-like snow, rain or such. To activate the traction control on drive pavement usually requires one to 'drive it like you stole it'. During normal driving the traction control does not keep you from skidding or slipping. However if it has a bad sensor (the system works in close cooperation with the anti lock brake system) that is giving errenous signals it could cause the system to activate and make the car feel like it is handling weird. A lot of times a temporary code will erase itself in short order from the computer due to limited storage space for the computer and if the bad signal went away it was problably a temporary problem that doesn't need service anyway. You can buy an inexpensive code reader for less than $50 that you can plug in and read immediately after the car flashes a trouble light or for a little more money get the system pogo suggests. They will work with any car that has been built since 1996 so they are useful for most cars on the road these days, and you can get many years of use out of a fairly cheap expense. Then you can use the exact error code with your documentation and it gives your case a lot more weight, and if you do a google search using the error code such as Saturn Aura code P10030 (just an example-I have no idea what error code is for abs/traction control-the above is a emissions control code)you can see what other users have experienced (if any). In fact a good place to start looking for model specific advice is a forum for your car, try googling saturn aura forum or something like that to find it. You will likely find an enthusist community really willing to help out a beleagured car owner. Good luck and sounds like a tough situation (especially with the demise of saturn).
posted by bartonlong at 1:44 PM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: I am also suspicious of the transmission, Pogo-Fuzzybutt - but I am not a mechanic. I tried to explain it as best I could. I mentioned that it was slipping on dry pavement - and on wet pavement - but intermittently. As with the airbag light, the traction control malfunction seems to come and go. I can't make it happen. There is a known safety issue with the 2007 Aura transmission, but I don't know if my problem is related to that.

I would certainly consider a OBD-II adapter - is that something I could rent/buy/get and use myself?

It's not a matter of the memory being erased erroneously. There is nothing to erase. Nothing has ever shown up on the diagnostics. Every single OnStar monthly scan shows up clean - including my air bag system - even though my passenger airbag did not work for 4 years, and OnStar itself was capturing my problems.

According to my car's onboard computers, my car has never had any problem in 4 years. The Service Airbag light would come on one mile after I left the dealership. I'd call OnStar, and they'd capture it - I'd take it in to the dealership an hour later, and there'd be nothing there.

The phone call was frustrating and not very helpful. Saturn says it's the dealership's responsibility to find and fix the problem. The dealership says it's Saturn's responsibility to authorize major repairs. I will try writing a letter with copies of all of my previous service work.
posted by clarkstonian at 1:54 PM on January 24, 2012

Yeah, you can buy OBD-II readers from amazon, or elsewhere. The software to use with them can be pricey, but if you shop around there are some good deals and you don't need anything too fancy.

As for codes being erased - they are stored in volatile memory, like RAM on a computer. If you pull the power they disappear. Well, other malfunctions (or poor designs) can do that as well. So you might get a code while you are driving - but then you turn the car off and the next time you start it, it gets cleared. Then a week later, you take it to the dealer and it's the same as if it was never there.

There isn't much room for storage of event codes anyway, so, even if you threw say, 5 errors, it might only keep the last 4.

And anyway, your best bet if you think it is throwing codes that aren't being retained is to monitor and log the OBDII port in normal operation with a different recording device.

All of that assumes that the device is throwing a code - it might not be. If the computer doesn't test for that particular error condition, or the sensor is responding incorrectly - well, no code.

But that aside - help me understand what you mean by "slipping". Like, you step on the gas and the engine revs, but the car doesn't go ? Or you step on the gas and the tires squeal ? It's front wheel drive, right ? When it slips, do you feel a pull on the wheel ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:13 PM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: Pogo-Fuzzybutt, the best way I can describe what is happening is - if my car were a bicycle, it would be as if the chain skipped one of the teeth on the sprocket. That's a description from someone who was riding in the car with me a couple of times when it happened. I don't know how to say it better than that. You can actually feel it when it happens.
posted by clarkstonian at 4:25 PM on January 24, 2012

I think part of OBDII requires that the codes be retained for something like 20 key starts. This may fall under Federal emissions warranty which is 8 years or 80,000 miles. A quick (and cheap) way to see if they are yanking your chain, find an Auto Zone near you. They will pull OBDII codes for free. If you don't have one near you, find a parts store that will. Write down the codes and look them up. A caveat, items like traction control and transmissions may have marque specific codes that general OBDII readers can't pull. When you shop for a reader, make sure it can read codes from your vehicle.

As for your description, I'd look for a misfire or a wheel sensor. There may be a sensor that detects wheelspin when there isn't. And 90% of transmission problems are ignition. If you get a code reader that does live data, you'll see these things as they happen.
posted by narcoleptic at 5:48 PM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks! You've given me some good suggestions to work with.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:18 PM on January 24, 2012

if my car were a bicycle, it would be as if the chain skipped one of the teeth on the sprocket.

The CNET review of the car notes that the traction control does allow tire slip during hard acceleration. If that were the case here, you would feel that in the steering wheel, and hear it under the right conditions. It doesn't sound like what you are describing.

To me, based on that description, it sounds like either an engine or transmission/transaxle problem. I mean, it might be a wheel sensor causing the traction control to go off - does the car have a light that comes on when the TCS is engaged ?

Otherwise, I would suspect that the engine could be misfiring, or otherwise losing compression; the transmission could be simply low on fluid, or have other mechanical issues.

Also, I will warn you that transient or intermittent problems are the worst to resolve. If you can figure out how to reliably reproduce the problem, it will make your life a lot easier in dealing with the dealership and/or other mechanics.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:20 PM on January 24, 2012

I had a problem with my old Touareg that they couldn't 'see' on the car's computer. I was at the dealership constantly. I finally looked at the service manager and flat out told him the we were either escalating this to his regional service boss or I was escalating it to our local news station. Up until that point I had been calm and reasonable but I did explain to him that I preferred that my vehicle accelerated when I was merging onto the freeway. He escalated up the chain.

They ended up finally giving up and buying my Touareg back from me. They sent it back to Germany to be dissected. So, I suppose my suggestion is calm perseverance followed by firm threats of bad publicity. That's what worked for me after 16 months of driving a lemon. FWIW, I like my shiny, new Touareg just fine.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 7:04 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out the forums at I have owned two Saturns and would always go there with questions. Great group of people, very knowledgeable, and could probably help you figure something out.

Are you dealing with a Saturn dealership, or a GM one? Since Saturn dealerships are pretty independently run, they vary in how they approach problems. When I was shopping for my second Saturn the one in my hometown seemed like they could care less if I shove money in their pockets. The one 6 hours away were much more helpful and I bought from them. And the one 14 hours away was the best service department on the planet when I moved there. So you might need to try another dealership, or find out who owns that one and escalate it up their chain.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:36 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not trying to blacken GM's eye, and I love my car, in spite of its issues, but the time I had with the airbag has me spooked. They hooked up their equipment to my car and said the airbag system was fine. It was never fine. It had been mis-wired at the factory. If they had ever actually looked at the wiring, they should have seen that. I have sheafs of papers telling me that they tested the airbag and it worked. That is simply not possible.

I've had two GM mechanics and one GM engineer (who does electrical systems on a non-Saturn car) tell me they think the wiring harness is defective or was improperly installed. All three have told me it's an expensive repair and GM will never do it - even though it was a factory defect. And they said they could be fired for telling me that. Take it all with a grain of salt. So, even if my wiring harness is perfect, I will never trust it. Maybe the diagnostic sensors work the way they should - maybe they don't. It's the notion that they're not actually looking at my car. They're relying on equipment that we have reason to believe is defective to diagnose problems. And they're telling me that I haven't actually seen and felt what I've seen and felt. And that OnStar couldn't have pulled a code that it did pull. That is exactly what they told me about the airbag. I know quite a bit about OnStar, and the codes capture what is going on in your car at the moment of the diagnostic capture. It's very reliable. It's one of the features I like best about GM cars. They actually told me OnStar had never pulled a code on traction control, when it had. I have the code numbers.

I haven't had any problems during hard acceleration. It's noticeable when I brake. My car will behave very differently at two red lights - one, it will stop properly, and the next, it will act as though it's not connected to the road - this was on wet pavement, about a quarter mile apart, and yes, I know cars behave somewhat unpredictably on wet pavement - but this was really abnormal. Again, I've driven many hundreds of thousands of miles in 60 or more different cars over the years. I've never had a car behave this way. It happened on dry pavement and a straight road when I was accelerating slightly. Those are the two most recent times. Again, it's intermittent. They're not going to find it in a random 3-mile road test. It might even be two different problems.

So one of my questions is, how do I get mechanics to listen to me instead of relying on diagnostics? I'm sure this is a frustration that a lot of us feel. They have not once asked me the questions you all have asked. Your questions are forcing me to try to come up with better descriptions of what has happened.

I'll write up your various suggestions and take them to the car dealership. I'll check out the Saturn forum. Thanks again.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:17 AM on January 25, 2012

Ask to take a drive with their 'drivability tech'.
posted by just sayin at 12:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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